The Milk Hours

Winner of the Max Ritvo Poetry Prize

“James writes with a patient honesty and a lyric beauty that will leave you ringing.” —ADA LIMÓN
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Winner of the Max Ritvo Poetry Prize, The Milk Hours is an elegant debut that searches widely to ask what it means to exist in a state of loss.

“We lived overlooking the walls overlooking the cemetery.” So begins the title poem of this collection, whose recursive temporality is filled with living, grieving things, punctuated by an unseen world of roots, bodies, and concealed histories. Like a cemetery, too, The Milk Hours sets unlikely neighbors alongside each other: Hegel and Murakami, Melville and the Persian astronomer al-Sufi, enacting a transhistorical poetics even as it brims with intimacy. These are poems of frequent swerves and transformations, which never stray far from an engagement with science, geography, art, and aesthetics, nor from the dream logic that motivates their incessant investigations.

Indeed, while John James begins with the biographical—the haunting loss of a father in childhood, the exhausted hours of early fatherhood—the questions that emerge from his poetic synthesis are both timely and universal: what is it to be human in an era where nature and culture have fused? To live in a time of political and environmental upheaval, of both personal and public loss? How do we make meaning, and to whom—or what—do we turn, when such boundaries so radically collapse?

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John James

John James is the author of The Milk Hours, selected by Henri Cole as winner of the Max Ritvo Poetry Prize. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he is pursuing a PhD in English at the University of California, Berkeley.

Praise and Prizes

  • “James is a poet of staggering lyricism, intricate without ever obscuring his intent. Quite simply, The Milk Hours announces the arrival of a great new talent in American poetry.”

    Shelf Awareness
  • “Ruminative and tender as the collection’s title suggests … These poems care deeply, and they give the reader the language to do so.”

    Los Angeles Review of Books
  • “Mysterious, ethereal … [James’s poems] retain this feeling: souls rooted in the ground.”

    The Millions
  • “The poems in this luminous volume shift effortlessly between lexicons and registers … James’s skillful craftsmanship makes this a memorable debut.”

    Publishers Weekly
  • “The titular poem in John James’s debut collection refers not only to the luminous hour of infant nurture, although that is its occasion, but to the violent loss of his father, an event distant enough that ‘snowmelt smoothes the stone cuts of his name.’ James’s searing attention is upon the fleeting, the untethered, upon fecundity and decay, the cosmic and the molecular. These are also the poems of a young father’s daily life in the wane of empire, who wishes ‘to remember things purely, to see them / As they are,’ and who recognizes in what he sees our peril. ‘The end,’ he writes, ‘we’re moving toward it.’ James is, then, a poet of our precarious moment, and The Milk Hours is his gift to us.”

    Carolyn Forché
  • “‘Home is a question,’ writes John James in The Milk Hours, a remarkable debut in which sorrow leads to an astonishing intimacy with the world. The speaker is pensive but inquisitive, bewildered by the loss of a father and renewed by love and parenthood. Art, science, and travel, like mortality, become tethers to the elegant and chaotic truths of our world. The Milk Hours is a moving and urgently crafted testament to resilience and to beauty.”

    Eduardo C. Corral
  • “John James writes with a patient honesty and a lyric beauty that will leave you ringing.”

    Ada Limón
  • “The poetry of the earth is intensely alive in the poems of John James. In this luminous first book, there are poems of a son and a young father. Many of the best inhabit a tormented Kentucky landscape where there is a field with horses, a house and a barn, a flooding river, a cemetery where a parent lies, and bees or flies hovering. Out of the sorrowful fragments of personal history, John James has a created a book of unusual intelligence and beauty.”

    Henri Cole
  • “John James does as that first singer did, Caedmon, who sang because he was told he must do so―a song of praise, of animals and life, of land and blood and time. Such work is wholly personal and completely anonymous, embedded in the very life and limb whose limits it also astonishingly resists.”

    Dan Beachy-Quick
  • “John James’s poems dig deep as he asks us to join him at the edge of his excavations, to see what he’s unearthed, and we can’t help but look until we see it too.”

    Portland Book Review